You know her pots: they're deceptively simple, exactly the right amount of imperfect, and often splashed with a beguiling, marbled blue. Many a trendy spot in New York and L.A. have more than one kicking around, usually filled with happy
Helen also makes some of our favorite ceramic kitchen wares around (and that's saying something), so we were surprised and even more impressed to learn that she is, in fact, an accidental ceramicist. She came to the world of kilns and pots via photography, and seized upon an opportunity to make a living and build a business based on a more tangible, functional medium. We're glad she did and recently visited her studio to learn more.
Helen in her studio in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood.
- Thanks for having us, Helen. I drink coffee or matcha from one of your mugs every morning. It’s sort of cool-slash-meta to think about interviewing the person that, years ago, made this object by hand that I have such a close relationship with…
- Knowing that something I made has become part of another person's daily life is the happiest part of my job.
- How’d you get into ceramics? What would you be doing now if you hadn’t gone down this path?
Ceramics has been a hobby of mine since I was a kid taking after school classes, but I studied photography in college and really saw myself doing that. Until I started selling my work, I hadn't been aware of the movement behind handmade goods and crafts, and I didn't know anyone making a living selling handmade, functional home goods. I was more tuned into the photo world and trying to figure out how to make that work for me, so I just didn't know it was a thing! But, once I opened my eyes, it really felt like the right fit for me. I feel so happy every day I get to come into the studio and I feel a certain freedom making functional work that I didn't feel as a photographer.
Helen pours the glaze out of a beach carafe.
Painting glaze onto the inside of a beach planter.
"I feel so happy every day I get to come into the studio and I feel a certain freedom making functional work that I didn't feel as a photographer."
Painting glaze onto the inside of a beach planter.
- So, start to finish, tell us the epic story of the making of a typical Helen Levi pot. Do you do every step yourself?
Ok buckle up—it's a long story with a lot of steps! First step is making the piece, which is usually throwing it on the wheel or casting it with liquid slip in a plaster mold. The plaster mold is made using an original piece I throw on the wheel, so that's a whole other step that has to happen before you can even cast. After the piece exists, the finishing comes in—maybe adding a handle, or trimming it, or smoothing it out. Usually that second step is the most time consuming. Then it dries for several days, and then gets bisque fired, which is firing in a kiln at a low temperature. Then it is ready to be glazed and fired again, and then it's finished! Then it has to be packed up for shipping, which takes longer than you might think. I have a couple studio assistants who work part time and help me with a few steps: the smoothing of cast pieces, glazing, and packing. But there's also a lot of side tasks they help with that aren't technically part of making a piece but are crucial, like making plaster molds or mixing glaze from dry ingredients.
Bisqued pieces waiting to be glazed.
- The marble swirls on many of your pieces have become somewhat iconic. Does the pattern have any specific inspiration? How do you actually do them?
I have been really drawn to marbling as a way to add color and pattern to my work. I have never felt very inspired by glazing, so marbling is a way to add color to the actual clay, so that when I get to the glazing step all I have to do is usually use clear glaze and the surface pattern is already a part of the piece.
- What’s the difference between stoneware and clay?
- Stoneware is just one type of clay, like porcelain, earthenware, terra cotta, etc.
- What do you do with those rare pieces that don’t work out? Ever smash something you don’t love just for fun?
- I'm not too precious about my pieces anymore. If something is badly cracked, or is just a test that I find ugly, I have no issue tossing it. But things with little cracks or small defects usually end up in my apartment!
Helen unloads pieces from the kiln.
The stamp on the bottom a piece, just before it's loaded into the kiln to be fired.
- What do usually listen to in the studio?
I'm all over the map when it comes to music. Some days its Top 40 hip hop all day, sometimes it's Fleetwood Mac, sometimes it's NBA or Bachelor podcasts, sometimes silence. I also had a reggae radio show when I was in college so I still listen to a lot of reggae.
- Any sculpture or ceramics heroes?
- I'm very inspired by the long tradition of functional pottery manufacturing that exists in the U.S.. I am more drawn to the functional ceramics movement than sculptural artists. I never get tired of visiting factories!
- Will you make me a new mug if I break mine in 10 years?